Casablanca (1942) – Michael Curtis (Dir.), Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson
Troll 2 (1990) – Claudio Fragasso (Dir.), Michael Stevenson, George Hardy, Margo Prey, Connie Young
I haven’t updated in a while. For this I apologize. It’s not that I have stopped watching movies nor is it that the font of unending opinion that is my mouth has run dry. Quite the contrary. I have managed to watch a number of movies and my mouth is still running the gamut from complete nonsense to completer nonsensier. There’s a funny about the universe. There’s this one finite resource, so fleeting and yet essential to all activity, happiness and general ability to do things and yet, depending on the time of year, its availability and accessibility fluctuate more than Anne Heche’s Kinsey score (Yay late-90s jokes!) though its temperance and abundance is rigidly constant: time. Currently, I have none of it. You know, the opposite of some. As though some little holiday elf in the shape of some kind of fucking little hair-show, present-buying, salon-running Rumple-mutherfucking-stiltskin has snuck into my goddamn time vault and pulled a full on Ocean’s 11 with of all of my temporal reserves. All moments in between have shrunk into nothingness, reduced to a general amalgam of utter, unrelenting stress, a snowball of mental frazzilty (I just made that up. That is how my brain works with no time to take breaths. True story.) Thus, I remain timeless. In the last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure to watch Skyfall twice because, well, apparently drinking your weight in bourbon (due to ‘panic attack’ becoming your general state of being) isn’t the most conducive activity when considering cohesive narrative. It was very good. See it. It turns into Home Alone starring Judi Dench at the end. It’s great. Just don’t drunkenly pass out in the front row. Sometimes you drool.
However, out of all of the ridiculous films I’ve witnessed, between all THREE FUCKING HOURS of The Great Escape, the entire 19,000 hour extended Lord of the Rings (Now with twelve endings instead of only nine!) and beginning American Horror Story, a television show so unsubtle, ridiculous and tasteless it could have been in Anna Nicole Smith’s entourage (too soon? Never too soon for late-90s jokes!) I’ve decided that my return to glory shall come in the least expected form. On two separate nights, I was encouraged, nay delighted to watch two movies that seemingly have nothing whatsoever in common. However, after a good deal of consideration, soul-searching and a lethal dose of holiday-season-insanity, I have found…no links at all. How can I write an article linking the two of them? Who fucking knows? I make it up as I go! This is my blog and who the fuck is going to stop me?
Two movies walk into a bar. She is one of the greatest movies ever made, a love story that manages to overcome the constraints of its time and become an immutable symbol of how love can blossom, die and rekindle the light even in the harshest of environments. He is the worst piece of turd milk ever squirted across a VHS player. On two entirely separate nights, two entirely separate audiences, I sat down with two entirely separate movies. On a cold, wine-filled evening, I settled into the couch, a symbol of modern urban safety, a land where you may travel to the very edges of the universe, emotion and the very depths of the human spirit without ever even breathing anything close to danger (unless you have a carbon monoxide leak…then you have other problems. I think you might die…but then again, I’m not a doctor. Who knows? It could be something that’s good for you but ‘Big Oxygen’ keeps spreading the lie that we ‘can’t’ ‘breathe’ ‘carbon monoxide’. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you! It goes all the way to Obama!), with my girlfriend and witnessed every beautiful moment of Casablanca’s 102 minute runtime. On another evening, sober as a bludgeoned badger (which is quite sober because badgers don’t drink. Idiot.) I took to another couch, my throne of snark, surrounded by lads and ladies, knights of the round bitchslap, a quorum of ridicule, a knitting circle of abject verbal brutality, and delighted in the agonizingly dilated hour and a half presented by the crap-a-licious Troll 2.
First of all, yes, scream it out: I had never seen Casablanca (Shock! Horror! Gore! Bush! Tipper! Gipper! Reagon! sdigfhbaigbafg ifg *&^*&^#()*#&@&R$@!&#…Sorry, I think I just blacked out. All this Christmas cheer is clogging my brain arteries. I think I’m going to wake up screaming bloody ‘Rudolph’ for months to come. The horror…the horror…) It is widely regarded as one of the greatest cinematic feats of all time; it’s included on almost every film critic’s ‘Best Of’ list; if Will Shortz doesn’t reference it at least twelve times in a week in the NYT crossword, the fucking apocalypse will come. Yes, it’s a cultural touchstone and icon of how fucking amazing 1940s romance-dramas can be. Yes, it has some of the most memorable lines of all time. Yes, it has Humphrey Bogart, a man made out of so much badass that a butcher took one look at him and declared, ‘Damn, that rump just can’t be served. It’s too fucking bad” (here played by Samuel L. Jackson). I’ve had this thing built up for years, people clamoring for me to watch, to witness it’s supposed greatness and, well, I can firmly say this, in my most eloquent, erudite, verbally agile critic voice: Casablanca is the tits. It seriously is. Just…beautiful, bouncy, life-giving, motorboat-ifiable tits. In all seriousness, it is so superbly acted, shot, written, crafted and woven into a tapestry of human heartache that you want to grab Claude Rains and just kiss him on that crazy French invisible-man mouth of his.
What’s Casablanca about? It’s about Casablanca. Good? Good. Moving on.
Okay fiiiiiiine, I’ll do a plot summary. So, there’s this place in 1942, Casablanca (I’m sure it still exists and existed before…or maybe it didn’t…who knows?). Pretty much everyone fleeing from the scourge of Nazism in Europe, instead of being vomited out of the mine-filled, Dunkirked mouth of Europe into the UK, has, like a bad Chinese dinner, flooded south. To Africa. Casablanca is the last place held by Nazi-occupied France before refugees can hope the pond over to the US. Rick owns a bar. Everyone ends up at Rick’s. Why, you ask? Because he’s the main character? Fuck no. It’s because he’s the only man in the history of time who would win in a gravel-off against Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and George Mutherfucking Washington. Rick, by way of a child murderer (not really, but Peter Lorre is fucking terrifying), gets a hold of some exit papers that will allow any two people to escape Africa without question. Everyone wants them. Suddenly, Ilsa shows up with her hubby and enough soft focus to make a Barbara Walters interview jealous. Here’s the thing, Rick and Ilsa used to bang like a screen door in a hurricane while both were stuck in Paris…and then it turned out her husband wasn’t dead after all. Awkward! Will Rick and Ilsa get back together? Will he give her the pass and leave her revolutionary husband to die at the hands of the Nazis? Will Rick stay in this Beckett-ian purgatory in northern Africa and let his once-true-love leave with the man she married? Will the entire cast of the Maltese Falcon show up? Will Claude Rains have the time of his fucking life? Watch the damn movie.
I’m not sure that there is anything particular special about any one element of Casablanca that makes it so time-honored. Rick, Humprey “I Eat Nazis for Breakfast” Bogart, is at once callous and removed and at second vulnerable and heart-broken. Ilsa, Ingred “Not Ingmar, I Make That Mistake All the Time” Bergman, is beautiful, irresistible and caught between a rock and a hard place (INSERT DICK JOKE HERE). Renault, Claude “Long Live the Stache” Rains, is slippery, funny and utterly unpredictable. The dialogue is witty and heartfelt. The tale is soaked in longing and truly does encompass the entire gamut of feelings that come with meeting a paramour once more (yay internal rhyme! Oh shit, I just fucked it up. Whatever, I’m tired. Shut up.) after doing everything in your power to strike them from the record of your heart (“This whole arterial court is out of order!” ~ My Love Lawyers). What makes it so memorable is that the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. While other films might be more dramatic, more clever, more Werner-Herzog-Waggiling-His-Penis, none can quite find the glorious center that is Casablanca. It’s a cup of hot cocoa. It’s the the first snow of winter, the silent tumble of snowflakes touching virgin earth. It’s a wool sweater still warm after pulling it from the dryer. It’s the nestle of goosebumps that titter and tapper across your skin when you wake up next to someone you love. It is challenging, sad and life-affirming all at once. It is a tale that deserves its place in the forefront of the collective imagination, an immovable node that sets the harmonious movement of our fictional lives.
So…with that being said, let’s turn to Troll Mutherfucking 2. How to describe Troll 2? Perhaps how you would describe the innards of that one cooler you forgot to clean out in the middle of the summer after you went strawberry picking? Perhaps the same why you’d describe changing the diaper of a child with IBS? Perhaps the same way one would describe witnessing a train wreck in slow motion. You know, the second it begins, as that first wheel lifts from the track that it will only get worse and more agonizing with each passing second. The bloody corpses of passengers begin soaring through mangled metal and gore sprays in glorious arcs of horror across the nightfall. It is grotesque and gorgeous all at once. Troll 2 is one of the strongest candidates for ‘Worst Movie of All Time’ I have ever seen. If you take the baffling incompetency of Tommy Wiseau, mix in utterly misguided hatred of vegetarians, sprinkle a dose of Ewok, a dash of Willow, a whole lot of adolescent urination and the inexplicable passion of Italian crazy people, you get Troll 2. What’s it about? Well, it’s not about a Troll, I’ll tell you that. It’s about Goblins that live in Nilbog (See what they did there? Well, apparently none of the characters do until the halfway mark *HEADDESK*). They eat people…but only after the people eat stuff that turns them into plants. Here is the brilliant thing, no amount of description can convey how baffling this film is. While Casablanca creates something great from good components, Troll 2 makes some fucking awfully, ass-sprayingly brilliant from a whole bunch of terrible. It’s not just one of those movies that’s so bad it’s good. It’s so bad it’s one of the greatest cult films of all time. There are rabid masses of fans who gather at midnight showings to celebrate the wonderfully unfortunate existence of this film.
Here is a platter of BS this film has to offer: inexplicable dance sequences, the worst reaction shot of all time, a popcorn orgy assassination, a ghost with selectively omnipotent powers, stonehenge, cheeseburgers as a climatic plot point, plant-vomit-sweat, a woman whose eyebrows deserve Oscar nominations, a general store owner more discomforting than your creepy uncle after two cognacs at Thanksgiving, and the line, “You can’t piss on hospitality! I won’t allow it!”. My friends and I couldn’t stop laughing for the entire length of this crap-tacular vegan-bash. It, like The Room, has tapped into the null space, the magical nothingness between ‘brilliance’ and ‘bullshit’. It’s the universe’s funny bone, a nerve cluster that has no right to be there and yet, every now and then, something just bad enough manages to lodge itself firm. However, again, it’s something that can’t be described (yes, even by me, a man who delights in explaining the inexplicable with broken, useless metaphors, supple peaches of explanation…shut up, I’m tired). Just gather a group of friends, a lot of alcohol, sit back and enjoy.
To be completely honest, I don’t want to discuss Troll 2 right now but rather its fascinating cinematic counterpart, Best Worst Movie. After the irrefutable tanking of this crud-meister of a movie hit VHS, pretty much every lead actor found themselves shit out of work. The son, who was slated to be a child star (though he spends a good deal of the run time with a face that looks halfway between breaking constipation and the worst orgasm anyone has ever had), found himself destroyed and his career over. Michael Stephenson, later in life, decided to make a documentary about making Troll 2 and what happened to the cast twenty years down the line. What ensues is a fascinating and fairly hands-off observation of the power of cult cinema, the incomparable zeal of bad-movie fans, and a critique of wash-up convention-attending celebrities. The father in Troll 2, a delightfully Alabaman man (you know, after you get past the familial abuse and all that), was played by a dentist who auditioned to be an extra. Thrust into the limelight, though magnetic in every way, the poor George Hardy can’t act his way out of paper bag with clearly marked exits. Pretty much the entire cast is just excited to be included in a cultural event, once again offered undeserved attention and adored by clamoring fans of the terrible. What is truly fascinating is the director of Troll 2. Claudio Fragasso, a man who could pass as Ron Jeremy’s European body double, is an artist who has completely detached himself from cognizant reality. When asked about the movie, he says, “It’s an important film. It’s about life, death, family.” As the runtime prattles on, you discover that Sig. Fragasso lives on a different plane of existence than the rest of us. His belief in his own work is so honest, passionate and unbreakable that it’s almost astonishing.
And I realized, while watching this man talk about the human spirit and, at the same time, remember the scene where the Goblin queen seduces the last of the boys with a popcorn explosion, that, in the end, it’s not about skill with the camera or talent. It’s about passion. We, as people, can sniff out cynicism like little truffle pigs wandering through fields of discarded film reel. So many directors for hire have pooped out films that they couldn’t have given a second shit about over the years. But Fragasso truly believes in his work. He wished to offer the world a gift, a gift of his artistic vigor. The only issue is that he has absolutely no talent. None. Like…negative talent, in that talent wanders in his direction and is gored into submission and returned from the dead, a husk of talent-flesh, a forte-zombie, the genius-undead. But it’s the passion. If this had been some kind of cynical pass at a money-making scam (*cough* Indiana Jones 4 – Kingdom of the Crystal MONEY PLEASE *cough*) it would have been a bland unwatchable piece of filmic detritus that would have long perished in the black hole of utter pointlessness. Instead, this is a man’s dream, his life goal, his soul bared plain to see. Instead, it is an eminently watchable unwatchable piece of glorious piece of filmic detritus that has crawled, puss-spewing from the maw of time-wasting to cheer, like some kind of shitty Rocky, arms high and proud, ready to wrastle its detractors one at a time.
When my friend Jesse informed me that “life was finite”, it took a while to understand the terror of what that actually means. As my December minutes whittle away into nothingness I discover that, even though I have to find time to actually write, the activity I love most in the world (maybe second most), while at work (yes, so sue me. I work 60 hours a week. Deal with it), I have found time to watch movies. They are a constant in my life. It’s not that they’re escapes, tiny transitory bubbles of safety that pop after only an hour and a half. They’re more than that. When done correctly, they are glorious little glimpses into the giddy souls of people with more money than you. Artists of both infinite and infinitesimal ability. I don’t know what it is, but sharing in this genius is just as exciting, fulfilling and life-affirming as sharing in the absolute lack thereof. In the end, quality or not, we love passion. A gentleman like Mr. Wiseau, Mr. Fragasso, even the king of shittiness Mr. Ed Wood aren’t artists because they create works that reveal the greatness of the human spirit. But it’s their tenacity, their self-belief, their strength of character in the face of all critical adversity that moves us and reveals something else. In terms of drive, these men are on par with your Scorcesses, your Coppolas, your Wellses, your Curtises. But you don’t see them get flabby and old. You don’t get to see them break, them lose faith in humanity (Shutter Island? Transformers the Animated Movie? Everything after Godfather Part II?), they have these single sparks of brilliance, a stamp on our cultural history and nothing more.
Casablanca did something for me. It proved what a great film could be without ever knowing it was going to be. There is no doubt in my mind that this thing was going to be just another war film. But it became so much more. Troll 2 did something for me. It proved how fucking awful film can be on an almost anti-deistic level. Two ends of the spectrum that add to the same end. Once again, it goes to show that great films are to be loved, the worst films are to be loved. The art that is left by the wayside, the pointless annoying lackadaisical pieces of nothing, are those that lack any drive. The ‘meh’s. The ‘alrights’. The ‘fiiiiiiiines’. Make it big! Make it bold! And actually give a shit about what you do. Always.